Huhne: Tory right wants UK to be semi-detached member of EU

Lib Dem cabinet minister says eurosceptics give the impression they want to 'destroy' the Union

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Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, has urged David Cameron to stand up to Conservative Eurosceptics to prevent Britain sleepwalking towards the exit door of the European Union.

In an interview with The Independent, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary accused Tory right-wingers of plotting to make the UK a "semi-detached" member of the EU and giving the impression they wanted to "destroy" the 27-nation bloc.

Reviving tensions between the two coalition parties after Mr Cameron vetoed a treaty to help rescue the euro at this month's Brussels summit, Mr Huhne warned the isolationist approach favoured by Tory sceptics would be disastrous for British jobs and trade and foreign investment in this country.

The former MEP said: "I am worried there is a tendency on the Conservative right wing, a significant part of its parliamentary party, that does not appreciate the importance of being at the table in Brussels when it comes to negotiating the rules for the single market – and does not understand the strength the EU gives us globally in tackling problems like climate change.

"We need to make that case more positively. The case for our membership of the EU is not a case for ending national sovereignty but for delivering an age-old, historic objective of our foreign policy."

And he argued: "Of course the EU is not perfect. It's too bureaucratic and it needs reform. That reform is much better argued from a position where you passionately believe in the benefits that can arise from EU membership than if your counterparts believe you have a hidden agenda which is essentially to destroy the EU and all its works."

Asked if Mr Cameron should take on his party's Eurosceptics, Mr Huhne replied: "I think it is sensible to put the case for engagement."

He had always believed Mr Cameron's decision to pull Tory MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament was against the UK's national interest – and the Brussels summit had proved it. Tory ministers admit key decisions were taken on the eve of the meeting when the European People's Party gathered in Marseilles. "You can't help wondering what would have happened if David Cameron had been there," said Mr Huhne. "If you are not at the table when things are being decided, you can't defend your interests. The phrase in Brussels is very clear: if you are not at the table, you are on the menu."

Mr Huhne rejected Tory MPs' demands for a Europe referendum and the repatriation of some powers from Brussels, saying the priority was to end the eurozone crisis. He said it was "crucial" that Britain was seen as part of the solution, rather than the problem, and that it was "massively in our national interest that the eurozone sorts itself out".

He added: "A lot of the Conservative right pine for some semi-detached status where we would be like Norway or Switzerland – enjoying the benefits of the single market without being a member of the EU."

And Mr Huhne warned that the Government would then have "no direct influence" over the rules, health and safety and environmental standards under which British firms would still have to operate. The UK would no longer be represented in the Council of Ministers and European Parliament, which jointly decide such regulations and constantly update them. But UK industry, including the financial services sector that Mr Cameron was trying to protect at the summit, would still be bound by the rules when it sold products to Europe, its biggest market.

He said Britain's place at the EU table also gave it "a massive advantage" in attracting investment from abroad because it was a "gateway" to European markets. "It is not in the national interest to be in a purely passive relationship, where our interests are being determined by other people," he said.

Mr Huhne, who represented Britain at this month's UN climate change talks in Durban, said the meeting was a "classic case" of joint EU diplomacy achieving more than national governments could ever do on their own.

But he did not reciprocate the seasonal good wishes from Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, who told The Independent this week he could "serve in a cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow". Mr Huhne said: "I've known Ed a long time. He has a nice mischievous streak." Significantly, he did not rule out a Lib-Lab coalition, adding: "Last time it was said we could never do a deal with the Conservatives. It would be just as wrong today to say we could never do a deal with Labour."